BEECH MOUNTAIN — The choice in the town of Beech Mountain might be framed as six candidates going for three council seats, but the theme during the nearly three-hour candidates forum at the Buckeye Lake Recreation Center on Oct. 10 was whether voters will prefer the three challengers or the three incumbents.
The event, hosted by the Beech Mountain Chamber of Commerce, featured 12 questions, submitted ahead of time, that each candidate got to answer. The second half of the forum featured several audience questions addressed to some or all of the candidates.
Challenger Jimmie Accardi, co-owner/manager or Famous Brick Oven Pizzeria, said he wants to continue his parents’ legacy up on Beech Mountain. Challenger Erin Gonyea, a retired middle school principal who worked in Florida, called herself a servant leader and said she was getting involved because she misses being in a leadership role with collaborative learning. Kelly Melang, a challenger who owns a social media company and is a former airline industry worker, says she thinks that Beech Mountain can do better and that fresh voices can be a good thing.
Mayor Renee Castiglione spoke on her record of four years on the town council, including the last two as the mayor. Castiglione said that all her decisions are based on safety, quality of life and are well-researched beforehand. Councilman Carl Marquardt, who has been on council since 2018, said serving the town is in his family’s tradition and he is very proud of what the town has done. Four-year Councilman Wendell Sauer said he’s been doing what can be done to make Beech Mountain the best place to live in the world.
In response to a question about whether there need to be changes on the council level, Accardi said that there’s nothing wrong with “fresh blood” in council positions. Gonyea said when you sit on a town council, it’s important to be open minded, and you need a fresh approach. Melang simply replied, “Yes, and that’s why I’m here.”
Castiglione said that consistency on a council is important, noting that she and Sauer were first elected four years ago and three new members (Marquardt, Weidner Abernethy and Vice Mayor Barry Kaufman) were elected in 2018.
“If you decided to vote for (Accardi, Gonyea and Melang), and it’s your choice, you’ll have two people with two years of experience and three people with no years of experience,” Castiglione said. “That’s a council that will struggle... If you keep putting new people on there, it’s great for fresh ideas, but when’s it going to get done?”
Marquardt said institutional knowledge is important and that going on council is a “pretty steep learning curve.”
When asked a question about the importance of council members working together, Marquardt acknowledged there has been a lack of civility displayed at recent town council meetings, but said he hopes it becomes the exception rather than the rule.
“There’s always two sides, and there’s passion on both sides,” Marquardt said.
Castiglione said that the council doesn’t always agree, and if you always agreed, she’d think something was going on.
“No one is ever voting against Beech Mountain,” Castiglione said.
Sauer noted that sometimes public opinion can change year-to-year, specifically noting public hearings about potential thinning of the number of deer in the town going from completely against last year to completely in favor this year.
Melang said listening to constituents rather than going with her point of view was her thoughts. Accardi said that as a small business owner, you must work well together and be a team player. Gonyea added that no matter how contentious an issue is, it should be done with diplomacy and discretion, and said her experience suits her for that.
“You name every situation, I’ve been involved with it,” Gonyea stated.
Marquardt repeatedly brought up that he feels some department heads need to change.
Public works was a subject brought up in numerous questions. Gonyea noted that she, Melang and Accardi went around to every department in town and asked questions on how things were functioning. Melang feels like more pressure needs to be put on Town Manager Tim Holloman to fix even small potholes, noting that she’s had the same orange cone on her street for two years.
“I’ve always said that our spirit animal in Beech Mountain is the orange cone,” Melang said.
Accardi said that certain department heads need to be “shaken up,” and that in speaking to every department head in the town, it jarred his brain that some didn’t have annual staff meetings. Later, Accardi noted that it would be foolish to pave or repave certain roads before new water lines are installed.
Castiglione said that there’s 63 miles of roads in Beech Mountain and that, while there’s room for improvement, public works is always working some place in the town. Marquardt said that if you want every single issue addressed in a quick manner, taxes need to be raised to accomplish it. Sauer said that there’s only so many months out of the year that road work can be done and that the town is frequently at a disadvantage.
One question noted that 36 fire hydrants in Beech Mountain don’t work, many of which have been inactive for more than 10 years. The current council members each noted that there’s a plan being developed to replace many of them, but some can’t be replaced at the current time as they’re running on two-inch water lines.
Accardi said that if he understood correctly, around half of those fire hydrants can be replaced within 90 days and said what he had heard sounded like a bunch of excuses. Gonyea called it a major safety issue.
One question asked what each candidate would increase or decrease on the budget, Sauer said that it’s hard to base budget decisions off the year-round population because of the seasonal populations.
Accardi said the town needs to grow with good taste and said that Beech Mountain is fragile. Gonyea said some needs are critical right now, specifically roads. Melang said staff meetings are important to formulate a good budget.
Castiglione said that the town council has tried to get citizen input, but in four years being on the council, the community has “chosen not to be involved.” Marquardt said that salaries and employees benefits are the most important and believes the merit raise program should be changed into a merit bonus program, saying it would create incentives for an employee to earn extra money.